Nemuri

Title: ねむり (Nemuri)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Illustrations: Kat Menschik
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Shinchōsha
Pages: 95

Every once in awhile, someone will ask me for advice on how to start reading literature in Japanese.

…Okay, I’m just kidding. No one has ever asked me that.

But I wish someone would, because then I could tell them about how Murakami Haruki is one of the easiest Japanese writers to read in the original Japanese language. His critics have said of him that reading his writing is like reading American English translated into Japanese. I think that’s supposed to be a bad thing; but, if you’re a reader of American English without a lot of experience reading Japanese, that sort of “translated” style is a godsend. Murakami’s sentences are relatively short and don’t have an unmanageable number of clauses, his paragraphs begin and end in reasonable places, the reader can easily differentiate between subject and object, his usage of idiom is generally familiar to someone who speaks English, and – best of all – he doesn’t use all sorts of crazy, high-level kanji.

This is not to say that Murakami’s style or stories are childish and simplistic. Rather, Murakami has a unique style, and that style is very accessible to people used to reading American English. Murakami’s system of allusive references should also be familiar to anyone who has grown up outside of Japan and has a passing familiarity with cultural figures from John Lennon to John Irving. I don’t mean to suggest that Murakami’s writing is some sort of hodgepodge amalgamation of Western culture, though, as his imagery and analogies and narrative structures are definitely his own.

Another nice thing about Murakami Haruki is that he has written a ton of short stories. These short stories have been collected into small, inexpensive books like Barn Burning and The Second Bakery Attack, but single stories are occasionally published individually in larger hardcover editions. “Nemuri” (translated as “Sleep” in The Elephant Vanishes) is one of those stories. It was originally published in 1989 in the collection TV People; but, when the German publisher DuMont issued an edition of the story with illustrations by Kat Menschik, Murakami edited and updated the story so that a similar art book quality edition could be published in Japan. Such an edition was published, obviously, and it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is interesting as well. The female first-person narrator once experienced a bout of insomnia in college, but she got over it and went on to marry a dentist and become a housewife. After having a kid and living with her family for several years, the protagonist’s life has fallen into a pattern of comfortable routine. One night, however, she experiences a terrifying case of sleep paralysis and wakes up to find that she is no longer has any physical urge to sleep. She tries to go back to bed, but she is simply not tired. She therefore pours herself a glass of brandy and begins reading Anna Karenina. The next night, she’s still not tired, so she continues not to sleep while staying up all night reading. Two nights turn into two weeks, and the narrator’s thoughts range from her daily life to the value of literature to how sleep works to the nature of life itself. Eventually, her musings on life turn into musings on death, and the narrative tension mounts until the story reaches and strange and disturbing conclusion.

Despite its unaffected language and seemingly flat surface, Nemuri possesses a very literary flavor and rewards slow and careful reading. Kat Menschik’s surreal and striking illustrations, which are loosely based on the text, offer another layer of possible meaning and interpretation. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading Japanese literature, then, I would venture that Nemuri is as good of a place to start as any. The Japanese characters are clear and sharp and large enough to read easily, the textual layout isn’t too dense on the page, and there are enough chapter breaks and illustrations so that even the slowest reader will feel as if she is making good progress through the book. The meta-textual elements implicit in the discussions of Anna Karenina are oddly motivating for the reader as a reader, and the story itself is fantastic and compelling. The whole package is just about perfect. Even if you’ve already read the story in TV People, it’s still worth picking up a copy of Nemuri if you see it on your next trip to a Japanese bookstore.

Keritai Senaka

Keritai Senaka by Wataya Risa

Title: 蹴りたい背中
English Title: “The Back I’d Like To Kick”
Author: 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa)
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 140

Wataya Risa made waves in 2001 when she became the youngest writer to win the Bungei Prize (文藝賞), a prestigious award managed by the literary magazine Bungei. She won the award for her debut novel Install (インストール), written while she was a senior in high school. After graduating from high school, Wataya entered Waseda University and began work on her second novel, Keritai Senaka. This novel would win her the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞), the single most prestigious literary award in Japan. At the age of nineteen, Wataya became the youngest author ever to receive this award.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a market dominated by pop fad writers like Yoshimoto Banana and Yamada Amy, it’s easy to be skeptical. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, when I say that Wataya is the real deal. Her prose reflects the background and personality of her high school aged narrator while still managing to maintain a definite literary tone. Her descriptions of people and places are vivid and artistic, and her introspective examination of memory and interpersonal dynamics are sure to resonate with anyone who’s old and yet young enough to be able to look back on high school with both bitterness and nostalgia.

The novel’s plot centers around the lone wolf narrator Hachi, her changing relationship with her best friend Kinuyo, and her developing relationship with a strange boy named Ninagawa. Hachi and Kinuyo have just graduated from middle school, and Hachi is disappointed that Kinuyo has become popular with a new group of friends in high school. Left to her own devices, Hachi is drawn to Ninagawa, a fellow outcast who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with other people. When Hachi mentions that she’s met the fashion model with whom Ninagawa is obsessed, he latches on to her, and she finds herself introduced to his strange otaku fantasy world, which ultimately provides a means for her to re-affirm her relationship with Kinuyo.

Although it’s debatable whose back Hachi wants to kick, the back that she does kick (twice) belongs to Ninagawa. Don’t let yourself think for one second, however, that this book is about a high school romance between the two. The somewhat twisted relationship between the them is exquisitely complicated and yet imminently understandable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. One of the main appeals of this novel, in fact, is the challenge of decoding Hachi’s feelings towards Ninagawa. Perhaps the other main appeal is trying to understand one’s own feelings, as the reader, concerning Hachi (and, by extension, oneself at her age).

Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be translated. For those of you studying Japanese, however, you will be pleased to find that Wataya’s prose is very accessible. The book can easily be finished in three or four sittings. If you’ve been looking for a book to serve as a gateway into Japanese literature, please allow me to recommend Keritai Senaka.

Neko Nabe

Neko Nabe, by Okumori Sugari

Title: ねこ鍋:みちのく猫ものがたり
English Title: “Neko Nabe: A Tale of Cats in the Northern Provinces”
Author (and Photographer): 奥森すがり (Okumori Sugari)
Publication Year: 2007 (Japan)
Pages: 96

Neko Nabe is a photography book chronicling author Okumori Sugari’s attempts to raise a litter of stray kittens in a traditional farmhouse in the north of Honshū, an area traditionally referred to as “michinoku.” To scholars of pre-modern Japanese literature, this area will be familiar as the setting of Bashō’s famous haiku collection Oku no Hosomichi (“Journey to the Far North”). Scholars of contemporary Japan will recognize Neko Nabe itself as a major phenomenon in bookstores and on the internet.

As her kittens (neko) grow older, Okumori finds that they have a habit of sleeping curled up in Japanese cooking dishes called nabe, which are used in the winter for making potluck stews called nabemono. Pictures of kittens sleeping in nabe abound, but this book has quite a bit more content to offer, especially as the photographs and text detail life in a pleasantly rural part of a country that is often perceived as overwhelmingly urban.

Another joy of this book is that it is written in the local dialect. Because Okumori’s Japanese is fairly simple to understand, a student of the language should have no trouble picking out and deciphering the instances of northern dialect. For example, 先ず becomes まんず, 私 becomes おらほ, and the speech of Okumori’s father and grandmother becomes quite colorful indeed.

Neko Nabe, filled with amusing anecdotes and charmingly amateurish photography, is a short, easy, and oddly engrossing read for Japanese students interested in a depiction of life outside of Tokyo. Even when the dialect gets too heavy to be comprehensible, the cats are still cute, so there’s no way to lose.